The Defensive Executive

In everyday parlance we use the term “defensive” to characterize attitudes and interpersonal behavior that seems closed, guarded, rejecting, and even overtly hostile. Equally popular in our everyday lexicon of organizational behavior is “passive-aggressive.” It expresses an agreeableness, which turns out to be insincere, even manipulative, as it later manifests in behavior that undermines agreement or support.

For our purposes, we can treat both as defensiveness. We define defensiveness, in this sense, as a way of responding to felt or perceived threat. In one sense, then, it’s function is self-protective. But beyond providing self-protection in the face of imminent threat, it may also be a way of responding when our future goals or interests are threatened.

There’s a big difference. Self-protective defensiveness, is less conscious or unconscious, and it’s more benign in intent. Ambition-driven defensiveness, is consciously manipulative and harmful to others as individuals and groups. To be clear, beneath the manipulative aims and strategic contrivance of the latter form of defensiveness usually lies unconscious insecurities. More on that later.

Two Very Different Impacts

One difference between self-protective and ambition-driven defenses is that the first is more common and its potential for adverse effects are less severe. Self-protective defenses are also far more easily assessed, diagnosed, and resolved than the second. Let me illustrate the difference. In doing so I should caution the reader that these are limited examples of the myriad forms of such defenses.

Self-Protective Defenses

John and Jenny interact very frequently in recent days because they are jointly leading a collaboration between their respective teams in account management (AM) and project management (PM). Their goal from upper management is to “reinvent” the way they deliver value to the client. Two self-protective defenses emerged that are slowing their progress: intellectualization (John), and avoidance (Jenny). 

Coordination issues emerged that caused frustration, and the two teams were struggling to resolve it. John, representing his team’s experience and views in AM, says “We know the client, and the methods we’ve recommended make the most sense to them. It’s simple logic, this is the best way to speed up delivery.” His message is conveyed declaratively with calm confidence.

Jenny, having heard this message, feels that John is leaving little room for discussion and showing little interest in understanding the frustrations that her people are feeling. She pauses and responds. “Let me discuss your approach with my team again to see if I can identify what specifically their concerns are. I’ll get back to you.” She conveys her message with composed conciliation. She avoids conflict.

Both John and Jane are hi-potential candidates for more senior leadership roles. They each have a strong track record of performance and are well-liked by their teams. But John needs to become more attuned to the social-emotional dynamics of work and more patient and curious about the views and experience of others in another business function. And Jenny has work to do too.

She must learn to express her feelings to John that he seems not to be very curious about what PM is seeing, thinking, and concerned about. She must trust her “instincts” and give John the opportunity to stop, reflect, and then reengage differently. It’s one thing to conceptually grasp these changes; it’s another to realize them in behavior. But both hi-potential candidates can do it with coaching. 

Ambition-Driven Defensiveness

Usually the development issues described above are truly “opportunities,” normal growth and maturity. But success depends also on the support they receive from cultural norms and the encouragement of their supervisors, the VP-level executives to whom John and Jenny report. Both VPs are members of the business unit President’s team. They’ve agreed to support this initiative.

But, the VP to whom John reports has ambitions to take over PM. He’s made his case in private to the President. He argued that he can build a more seamless value-delivery system and boost revenues if he has control of both functions. His ambition has led him to encourage John to stand his ground on basic methods and practices – “we know better, soon the initiative will be complete.”

John feels divided. He’s naturally more of a team player. His defenses are not ambition-driven. He’s eager to learn, about himself and his self-limiting tendencies (intellectualizing), and about the business. He admires Jenny and the President. He’s been loyal to his boss, but he’s been put in a very difficult position by being reinforced to act in ways that do not promote true collaboration.

It’s not the first time John’s boss has used passive-aggressive behavior and manipulation of direct reports to realize his ambitions. But John has come to see even more clearly, since getting some coaching, that what his boss in advocating runs against the norms of the organization and the will of their President. And because the initiative has been more formalized and sponsored, the behavior issues have become more visible.

Taking Corrective Action

In most cases, if executives have used ambition-driven defenses with success, adaptive change is less likely. It’s usually necessary for the President to address these kinds of issues. In some cases, where the unhealthy motivations of an executive are not so deeply rooted, and where they’re able to see how it’s in their interest to behave differently, there may be realistic hope for change.

But I’ve seen enough organizations plagued by this kind of dysfunction to appreciate the consequences of inaction. Talented people leave. The organization’s creative-productive potentials are not fully realized. It almost always shows up in disappointing engagement scores.

So, I recommend that you constructively reckon with the normal, natural kinds of defensiveness that impede collaboration. You should be doing this in the natural process of development.

As for the more chronic and harmful kind of defensiveness, especially at executive levels, I would advise that you not be too patient. These problems are not like good wine, they don’t get better with age! 

Problem vs. Mystery: A Vital Difference

 Keeping the horizon in view

Keeping the horizon in view

Gabriel Marcel was a very interesting French philosopher and playwright (1889-1973), labelled by some a Christian existentialist, but her preferred to be regarded as a neo-Socratic. Why? Because he accepted a certain kind of not-knowing that he believed was inherent to the human condition. It was especially tied to our capacity for appreciating the mystery of being. As you'll see, it's an idea that has practical relevance for us in everyday life and in leadership.

In this regard, he differentiated problems from mystery. Problems are experienced as mental states in which we don’t have enough of the world before us (facts, data, information) to figure things out. There is something knowable, which we don’t know. But if we did know we could solve the problem. Mysteries on the other hand, are states in which the world gives us more than we can understand or articulate.

Mystery is not to be construed "as a lacuna in our knowledge, as a void to be filled, but rather as a certain plentitude."

An interesting question, then, concerns how we are to recognize and respond to these two experiences in everyday life. But it’s more than interesting when the answer to this question is consequential. And since my readers are mostly interested and concerned with human development and performance in the workplace, I feel obliged to show that the problem-versus-mystery distinction has practical relevance at work.

Perhaps Demystifying is Overrated

There are few values more prized in business than clarity of thought, proactivity, and pragmatism. The first produces strategy, plans, and goals capable of directing action. The second, proactivity, represents a bias for doing, initiative, and the energy to drive execution. And pragmatism is about accountability for results, doing what works, and staying on task. So, it’s no surprise efforts to “demystify” are praised.

One way to demystify complex issues is by “problematizing” [1] them, a practical-instrumental mode of thought that transforms our ways of construing a presenting situation. It involves conceptualizing the situation as a problem and makes it amenable to solution in a way that realizes our practical goals. It reduces the original plentitude and complexity to something simpler. It delimits the scope of analysis, identifies key variables, and looks for causal patterns of interaction to guide planning and execution.

This intensifies and focuses our mental, emotional, and practical energies and actions. It empowers us to act upon a now objectified situation. We’re no longer overwhelmed, frustrated, or feeling stuck. We are now empowered to act with deliberate purpose, strategy, and objectives. You can hardly do too much of this kind of work. When done in a group, it aligns our thought and actions and positions all to lead. 

What this brief discussion suggests so far is that there are three distinct modes of consciousness at play: 1) the everyday immersion of self and others in the immediate course of routine-habitual activity of the workplace; 2) the reflective-critical appraisal of the presenting situation, which problematizes what would otherwise be experienced as routine; and 3) the experience of mystery, “a certain plentitude.”

Mystery, then, might be regarded as an impediment to the operation of either reflective or habitual mind. But what if it’s not? What if an attitude of humble, non-problematizing wonder has intrinsic value for us? That’s what Marcel suggests, that responding to the plentitude of mystery with passive-receptive wonder informs, affectively moves, but also stills the mind to see, hear, notice, and most of all to appreciate what lies before it in a state of mystery – values, reasons, people, circumstances that need to be understood. [2]

How is this appreciative state of mind and being of value? How does it relate to our other modes of consciousness? The simplest answer, which is what I will offer in this brief article, is that an appreciative consciousness of mystery conditions us to see and act with greater wisdom and prudential judgment in all areas of our life. It also affects what, when, and why we are prompted to problematize matters.

We are most fully human, and we lead with greatest virtue when we pause to ask ourselves:

  1. When is it fitting and appropriate to treat the challenge before us as one of problem solving?
  2. Which situations most properly demand humility, and a curiosity that's satisfied with gleaning appreciative insights that condition our attitude, feelings, and action tendencies?
  3. When do we press too hard because we wrongly treat a situation as merely a problem space to fill and resolve?
  4. What kinds of mysteries do we overlook that might make us wiser, more prudent?


[1] Problematizing is a kind of critical thinking and dialogue used to examine the concrete aspects of a presenting situation, the parties involved, and the dynamics of interaction. It highlights and reframes challenges in ways that invite transformative action. We suspend reactive, habitual, taken-for-granted attitudes, posing the situation as problematic. This reflective stance invites consideration of new viewpoints, raises self-other awareness, and generates hope. This qualitative shift in thought, feeling, and relating to others reveals new pathways of action.

[2] These are values that make a claim on us for their own sake, e.g., truth, beauty, love, compassion, and fairness. They give us reason care about others individually and collectively, and to be concerned about greater goods. They cause us to see people as ends not means, worthy of being treated with dignity and care. They cause us to recognize circumstances of suffering that arouse feelings of kindness and compassion. 

The Fulfilling Expression of Self

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Many good things happen during our development from infancy to old age. We learn and accomplish a great deal. A personal identity is born in the mirroring of self by Mom and Dad, family, and by teachers. So, by the time we reach adulthood, most of us are known and know ourselves as someone distinct from others by personality, temperament, experience, interests, talents, and aspirations.

Some of us, due to less fortunate circumstances, enter adulthood less certain of our identity and value as persons. In either case, the opportunity for a fulling development as a person exists. It just may require a different kind of effort and help for those with a less healthy and/or privileged start in life. But I will leave the difference of initial advantage aside for now to address a common theme.

What is Fulfilling Expression of Self

This theme is what I shall call the “fulfilling expression of self.” Rather than being a goal conceived as an end state, we shall characterize it as a way of being. Specifically, it is an authentic way of being. This kind of authenticity consists in acknowledging self as a work in progress. And that progress implies struggling and striving to live in accordance with moral and prudential values that define what is good, right, and proper.

When we live a healthy, adaptive, and morally good quality of life, we do not achieve perfection, but we do live well. We learn to see, feel, and understand ourselves, our situated existence and experience. We learn that there is often more there than what we notice matter-of-factly in everyday life. We recognize that our habitual ways of functioning – perhaps 50% or more of our actions in life – are not always enough.

And we learn to notice when our habitual modes of living are not sufficient. It’s felt before it’s cognitively or intellectually known. And insofar as we cultivate practices for suspending habit and invoking a reflective pause, we’re able to regard our experience mindfully. A troubled feeling awakens a curious mind. And the curious mind seeks to see and then to understand. It suspends judgment.

A Special Window of Opportunity

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Now that we’ve gained the advantage of this mindful attitude, what can we do with it that would assert our authenticity and lead to sound moral and prudential judgment? That is, after all, the way of being I have characterized as fulfilling self-expression. Alas, we have available for use in conceptualizing this way of being a powerful tool. It’s a somewhat modified version of the Johari Window.

I have elsewhere written about the Johari Window elsewhere, so I won’t discuss it in a comprehensive way here. My present aim is to call your attention to the green arrow labeled “relational coaching” that indicates action toward the “Unknown” quadrant of this model. Why emphasis on the arrow and a focus on the lower right quadrant? Because it represents an especially powerful way fulfilling self-expression.

Fulfilling expression of self is represented by actions that enlarge the “Public” quadrant. It’s a quality of interaction between self and others, which, through acts of self-disclosure and feedback, enlarges the Public area. It promotes greater mutual openness and reduces our Blind Spots. It also involves showing more of ourselves to others, sharing what we might otherwise keep Private.

The content of the Unknown region consists of fears, inhibitions, and constraints that operate outside our conscious awareness. To access these dynamics forces of mind, we usually need an expert guide or coach. It is through this kind of psychologically-informed helping relationship that we find the right mix of expertise, trust, and skilled interaction required to make the Unknown known, at least to us, the client.  

Back to Differences in Starting Point

The forces originating within the Unknown quadrant constrain our capacities for fulfilling self-expression. And they operate with greater power on those whose early life experiences did less to promote trust, more to foster fear. So, while a coaching relationship will be helpful for anyone who seeks to break through to the next level of authentic living, it’s particularly important for those coming from a less healthy, adaptive family of origin.

Just as mindfulness practices function as an anti-anxiety agent for any of us, the relational coaching that helps us explore and “detoxify” the Unknown region alleviates the barriers that limits our growth. The good news is that this kind of coaching has holistic benefits for all areas of life, at home, at work, and in all important relationship. It is truly business-relevant personal growth. It’s not to be feared or avoided; it’s to be welcomed and seized as an opportunity!

Welcoming the Hard Stuff

It’s not about gritting your teeth!
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Welcoming the hard work softens it. Better put, it softens the forces of resistance within us. It does so by revaluing this work and by honoring the truth and teaching it has for us. Its truth is that in being done it makes life easier. Its teaching increases our practical wisdom and prudential judgment, freeing us to live and act from an internal locus of control.  

We want the structure of lives, like the foundation of our home, to be “hard.” It supports everything else that is more fragile and that needs a protected space to grow. Structure, like the frame of a greenhouse, contains and protects, but also gathers light, warmth, moisture – the conditions for nurturing growth. But it’s easier proven by doing than by saying.

How to Welcome the Hard Stuff?

Welcoming is a receptive act. It begins with opening ourselves to meet the constituent parts of that which we label hard. It involves relaxing the tensions induced by our habitual aversion to the task. It’s about make space and time to appreciate the intelligent practices and helpful results that arise from the doing. It’s about being present to the experience. 

The hard stuff for many of us includes administrative work. Note that one of the adages related to this work can take the form of an admonishment: “You must keep your house in order.” But administrative tasks also reveal patterns as they create order. It may require that we focus retrospectively, combing through invoices, activity records and the like to summarize, categorize, report.

But in the process, and if we are attentive, we are prompted to consider the purpose, strategy, and course of our actions which these records document. What did we do? How did it create value? Are there insights from these data about the return we’re getting on our time and efforts? Might this history indicate what we should be doing more of, less of, or approaching differently?

We are prompted to notice what we have done and perhaps what remains unfinished. Records of past action most often fire thoughts about current and future opportunities and challenges. It’s for this reason that Business Schools have emphasized analytics. Analysis can stimulate forward-thinking insight. So perhaps we might keep some parallel notes while doing our hard-stuff tasks.

The Role of Mind States

Attitude, purpose, and method are choices. But there only choices if we free ourselves to notice them as choices. We can most skillfully notice them as choices by employing mindfulness practices that loosen our grip on default modes of attitude, purpose, and method. A non-grasping mind is one that can consciously consider these options.

So, close your door if you have one. Sit. Assume an upright posture, chin slightly tucked, and shoulders back to open your chest. With eyes closed, as you breathe in, notice your spine lengthening, your chest expanding. The air you breathe in through your nostrils will feel cooler than the air you exhale through your nostrils. Settle. In the first few breaths find a comfortable, stable base. 

In these moments – 5 minutes will do – notice any racing thoughts or preoccupations. They’re natural. That’s how our mind works. But then let them go, let this busy mind go, and return to the breath. Be nowhere but here, now. As distractions arise, return to a focus on the breath. You might also scan your body, noticing areas of tensions. Breathe into them, and on the out breath release the tension.

That’s a bit of brief guidance on how to change mind states. It’s an ancient practice that helps free you to welcome the hard stuff with an attitude of curiosity and openness. In this way it’s more likely to reveal itself as a place where you can be and an activity from which you can learn and derive benefit. But these changes don’t just happen, we must welcome them.

The Is and the Ought in Development

A pervasive theme in individual and organizational development concerns judgment and the importance of not imposing judgment in a learning situation. The kind of judgment intended when we speak of it in this context involves an evaluation – and especially a de-valuation – of the person. The advice is usually to keep our discussion descriptive of behavior and its practical efficacy in achieving our aims.

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True, proper, and prudent as far as it goes. But we’ve also wrestled with the notion of “value-neutral” approaches to coaching and professional psychology. Is there really such a thing? Is eliminating the role of values in questions of what’s healthy, effective, or adaptive really necessary or desirable? Or perhaps it’s okay for the client to claim values, but not for the therapist or coach to question them.

Why and How an Is-Focus Helps

The word “is” is a verb, the present tense of the verb to be. By focusing on what is, we attend to the present temporal state, not some other desired or preferred future state, or a past state that has been. One reason mindfulness-based approaches to emotional self-management are so popular and effective is because they cultivate practices for staying in the present. It’s a natural anti-anxiety prescription.[1]

When we’re seeking to understand a person’s tendencies in thought, feeling, motivation, and behavior to assess what is working (adaptive) and what is not (maladaptive), it’s ultimately an empirical exercise. These are observable tendencies that can be measured with an instrument and described by a trained professional. Moreover, their association with outcomes will indicate just how adaptive they might be.

When a therapist or coach facilitates this kind of inquiry and helps a person distill a rather dispassionate description of their behavior and an objective appraisal of its efficacy, it makes all this available as data. It’s now “out there” for our examination. It frees us to “problematize” important situations that we’d like to handle better. We’re free to consider alternative ways of being in those moments.

We are even free to experience now, in the moment, what feels difficult or challenging about trying a different approach. Making this real-time struggle explicit tells us even more about what’s getting us stuck, and what might prevent us from acting differently in thought, decision-making, or overt behavior. We may recognize deeply rutted patterns, habits of mind that we must break or at least interrupt.

So, staying in the present, even as we consider past events, situations, and behavioral interactions, does give us power to learn, change, adapt, and resolve “problems of living.”[2] The more we describe rather than judge them and their consequences, the more we loosen their grip on us. Appraising instrumental efficacy, the cause and effect of behavior and outcomes is one thing, judgment is another.

When and How an Ought-Focus Helps

The ought that I have in mind has multiple meanings. It’s a principle grounded in values that makes a moral claim on us to do what is good, right, and proper for its own sake. Such moral values and beliefs form a fundamental part of our identity as persons. They are cultivated, articulated, observed, and preserved in our cultural traditions. As such, they can and should influence our judgment.

Our fidelity to these moral imperatives defines our character as persons. Fidelity to these value-based norms of conduct has implications also for the quality of our practical wisdom and prudential judgment. Some means of achieving our goals may be preferable, not because of any absolute superiority to others, but because they do more to realize common virtues affirmed by our moral values.

If we believe that we must treat all people as ends and never as means, to have regard for their dignity as persons, then we will choose ways of handling layoffs and performance appraisals that leave people feeling respected. We may not fully succeed, but we’re compelled to try. This gives us reason to focus on how we communicate (behavior), and to practice skills that will better express these values.

Focusing on what is and what ought to be are complementary avenues of reflection. Both are relevant in our ongoing development as leaders, as persons, as citizens, and as colleagues. Perhaps most important is that we consciously choose which line of self-examination to focus on at any given moment.

On the one hand, when vital decisions that affect others are imminent, ought-to-do’s provide essential guidance. On the other hand, if we’re stressed, strained, and overwhelmed, the mental and emotional capacities we rely upon to sustain fidelity to our moral ought’s can be depleted. And timely attention to behavioral dynamics and situational facts may inform how-to-do what we ought-to-do better.


[1] Most mood disorders involve rumination and being in some other state than the present one.

[2] Karl Jaspers, a renowned 20th century psychiatrist and philosopher, distinguished those mental and emotional problems that are attributable to underlying biomedical causes from problems of living, which are learned ways of being that become habitual and problematic but are amenable to change with insight and conscious effort.